Autism and Bipolar Disorder: The Surprising Connection

Today you will learn about the connection between bipolar disorder and autism

steven zauderer
Steven Zauderer
December 12, 2023
min read

The Connection Between Bipolar Disorder And Autism

Since people with autism and bipolar disorder can behave in similar ways, it can be hard to notice the differences.

Since people with autism and bipolar disorder can behave in similar ways, it can be hard to notice the differences.

For a better understanding of the differences and similarities, one should consider the following:

  • Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder white bipolar disorder is classified as a psychiatric illness.
  • For an autism diagnosis to be made, an existing symptom that takes place in a child's early developmental period should be seen. However, there are instances where older children and adults can be given a diagnosis later in life, though it's primarily caused by a lack of routine checkups during their earlier youth.
  • The symptoms associated with being bipolar can occur at any point in someone's life, though adolescence is when it's most likely to occur. The typical age for an adult to show bipolar symptoms is 25.
  • The criteria for bipolar disorder can include issues relating to one's mood, such as depression or mania. The criteria for autism aren't connected to one's mood at all.
  • People that are bipolar can switch from differing moods yet this isn't common for someone on the spectrum.
  • Bipolar people that aren't harboring autism won't always show symptoms that are the same as other behavioral disorders, like problems with speaking or poor communication skills.

What is Bipolar Disorder?

Bipolar disorder is a condition relating to mental health that impacts one's moods, whereby they may change from one extremity to the next. At one time, bipolar disorder was most commonly referred to as manic depression.

However, people that are bipolar may exhibit periods called manic episodes, where they show high levels of energy and become very excited. This often leads to a later state of depression, characterized by low energy and moodiness.

Causes of Bipolar Disorder

Below are common symptoms associated with bipolar disorder:

  • Manic episodes - One may have abrupt or lasting periods where energy levels are high, sometimes for no apparent reason. Things like talkativeness, an inability to remain still, and rapid, racing thoughts are common during these periods.
  • Hypomanic episodes - This is common to the characteristics described with mania but lasts for a shorter while. They may or may not be easier for someone that's bipolar to manage on their own.
  • Depression - People that are bipolar often suffer from depression, sometimes following manic episodes but can also occur at unexpected times. They might become reclusive, unable to be uncommunicative, and show a lack of regard for otxfxhers around them.
  • A mixture of mania and depression all at once - When this happens, someone who is bipolar might be at risk of hurting themselves in the most severe cases.
  • Symptoms related to psychosis - While not all people that are bipolar will suffer from psychosis, those that might be unable to function independently due to the risk of self-harm or harm to others nearby.
Additionally, bipolar disorder can impact anyone. It typically grows in adolescents between 15 and 19 years old. It rarely develops in adults that are older than 40.

The root causes of bipolar disorder aren't known yet, but some triggers are likely to cause it. Some are as follows:

  • High levels of stress - In your people that belong to the age group most susceptible to bipolar disorder, high levels of stress can be the cause, including an overwhelming amount of work or responsibilities that go beyond the limits of what a typical teenager has.
  • Problems that become too much to bear - Things like mounting financial issues, trouble with relationships, infidelity, or being terminated from work can all lead to symptoms common among people that are bipolar.
  • Death of close people - The death of a parent, sibling, or close friend can lead to a bipolar diagnosis.
  • Genetic factors - People that come from a family where bipolar disorder is already present are at increased risk for getting it as well, especially when a traumatic event occurs.
  • Use of drugs - Some drugs are known to boost the likelihood of bipolar disorder, both legal, illegal, and illegally prescribed medications.

Bipolar disorder is known to impact people's lives with negative consequences, some of which include mood swings that make carrying daily tasks difficult to impossible.

Even driving can become hard and force people to stop from the dangers they might cause to themselves, other drivers, and pedestrians. At its worst, it might lead to suicidal thoughts and marked episodes of self-harm, especially in young people.

Many people that are bipolar have trouble eating, sleeping, and carrying out relationships with others that are close to them. Personality changes are also a common feature of symptoms, where someone might suddenly become aggressive for no apparent reason or severely agitated over mundane occurrences.

Other causes of bipolar disorder could be related to the structure of the brain and imbalances in the brain's neurotransmitters, particularly when abnormalities are seen in chemicals like a lack of norepinephrine and serotonin.

People with a family history of bipolar disorder raise their chances of getting it also. And environmental triggers, such as a sudden traumatic experience, extreme levels of stress, and long-term illness might not cause bipolar in someone but can certainly result in mood episodes.

Characteristics of Autism

The characteristics of autism usually revolve around an inability to formulate and handle social connections with others.

Here are some additional features that are commonly present:

  • Problems picking up social cues - Social cues include eye and facial expressions, body language, and the cadence and tone of someone's voice. Autistic have issues understanding these signals in other people and have a hard time engaging with them on their own.
  • Trouble eating - Autistic individuals, especially those that are young, may have difficulty getting food to stay down. Sometimes, this can be caused by impairment in the gut, though other times simply from a poor liking of certain colors, smells, and textures of food.
  • Tantrums and bad social behavior - Autistic people could disrobe themselves in situations where it's inappropriate for them, or resort to aggressiveness ending in self-harm.

Causes of Autism

Per person, some of the markers and symptoms found in autistic people can look identical to others that are bipolar. People with autism might experience issues such as the following:

  • Problems with sleep - This may take place for months or even years.
  • General Irritability - Problems staying still or easily becoming irritated over random occurrences.
  • Behaviors that repeat themselves - Things like clapping, making noise, and twirling hair.
  • Impulsive behavior - Behavior that's poorly thought out and becomes easily distracted.
  • Talkativeness - Although not everyone with autism shows this symptom, those that do often have issues staying quiet and may behave this way as a means of coping with their surroundings.
  • Potential aggressive behavior - Self-harming actions like banging a head on a hard surface, kicking, and hitting solid surfaces.

Behaviors like this can happen for various reasons both bipolar disorder and autism. However, autism isn't characterized by sudden shifts in mood that randomly happen. It's typically not triggered by an event in the way bipolar disorder is, though there are events that can trigger symptoms of autism.

In any case, the disorder itself isn't caused by things that happen spur of the moment. It's usually detected early in a child's life, even in infancy.

By itself, autism doesn't lead to extreme levels of depression. They are more at risk of having problems speaking, communicating with others, and being aware of the feelings shown by people around them.

Stimming is a common symptom. It involves someone on the spectrum rocking back and forth, mumbling to themselves, and pacing around. This is done to calm themselves down, though not commonly found in people that are bipolar.

The Differences Between Bipolar Disorder And Autism

As autism is a developmental disorder, symptoms are most often found in children that are three years old, on average.

However, bipolar disorder is classified as a mental condition, one that can occur at any age and can be triggered by a traumatic or stressful situation.

What To Do If You Suspect Bipolar Disorder in an Autistic Person

When bipolar disorder is suspected in someone with autism, people close to them should first rule out symptoms that the two share.

If some of their reaction appears to be uncommon or unusually abrupt, a visit to a psychologist is advised. There is a medical professional who determines if there's an underlying condition.

When bipolar disorder is suspected, it usually relates to something happening in the child or adult's life that's difficult for them to cope with. Several follow-up visits with a psychiatrist might be necessary for them to prevent a misdiagnosis.

What to Expect From Treatment

People getting treated for either autism or bipolar disorder should expect their treatment to revolve around the following practices:

  • Telling doctors about the symptoms they have and feel they exhibit.
  • Doctors look for symptoms that seem to happen in repetition.
  • Determining how long symptoms go on.
  • How recurring symptoms begin to impact their life.



steven zauderer

CEO of CrossRiverTherapy - a national ABA therapy company based in the USA.

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